Sample Literary Analysis Essay With Secondary Sources In Law

Identifying Primary and Secondary Sources: A Preliminary Guide

The materials, evidence, or data used in your research are known as sources. As foundations of your research, these sources of information are typically classified into two broad categories— primary and secondary.

Primary Sources
A primary source provides direct or firsthand evidence about an event, object, person or work of art. Characteristically, primary sources are contemporary to the events and people described and show minimal or no mediation between the document/artifact and its creator. As to the format, primary source materials can be written and non-written, the latter including sound, picture, and artifact. Examples of primary sources include:

  • personal correspondence and diaries
  • works of art and literature
  • speeches and oral histories
  • audio and video recordings
  • photographs and posters
  • newspaper ads and stories
  • laws and legislative hearings
  • census or demographic records
  • plant and animal specimens
  • coins and tools

Secondary Sources
A secondary source, in contrast, lacks the immediacy of a primary record. As materials produced sometime after an event happened, they contain information that has been interpreted, commented, analyzed or processed in such a way that it no longer conveys the freshness of the original. History textbooks, dictionaries, encyclopedias, interpretive journal articles, and book reviews are all examples of secondary sources. Secondary sources are often based on primary sources.

Primary and Secondary Sources Compared

An example from the printed press serves to further distinguish primary from secondary sources. In writing a narrative of the political turmoil surrounding the 2000 U.S. presidential election, a researcher will likely tap newspaper reports of that time for factual information on the events. The researcher will use these reports as primary sources because they offer direct or firsthand evidence of the events, as they first took place. A column in the Op/Ed section of a newspaper commenting on the election, however, is less likely to serve these purposes. In this case, a columnist’s analysis of the election controversy is considered to be a secondary source, primarily because it is not a close factual account or recording of the events.
Bear in mind, however, that primary and secondary sources are not fixed categories. The use of evidence as a primary or secondary source hinges on the type of research you are conducting. If the researcher of the 2000 presidential election were interested in people’s perceptions of the political and legal electoral controversy, the Op/Ed columns will likely be good primary sources for surveying public opinion of these landmark events.

The chart below illustrates possible uses of primary and secondary sources by discipline:

DisciplinePrimary SourceSecondary Source
Archaeologyfarming toolstreatise on innovative analysis of neolithic artifacts
Artsketch bookconference proceedings on French Impressionist
HistoryEmancipation Proclamation (1863)book on the anti-slavery struggle
Journalisminterviewbiography of publisher Katherine Meyer Graham
Lawlegislative hearinglaw review article on anti-terrorism legislation
Literaturenovelliterary criticism on The Name of the Rose
Musicscore of an operabiography of composer Georges Bizet
Political Sciencepublic opinion pollnewspaper article on campaign finance reform
Rhetoricspeecheditorial comment on Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech
Sociologyvoter registryPh.D. dissertation on Hispanic voting patterns

Primary Source Searching in IUCAT
Use the IU online library catalog (IUCAT) to look for primary source materials.
Employ the Library of Congress subject heading subdivisions below to retrieve primary materials from IUCAT. These subdivisions indicate the form in which the material is organized and presented.

Subject Heading Subdivisions
Anecdotesdiariespictorial works
Archivesdocumentary filmsportraits
Biographyexhibitionspublic opinion
caricatures and cartoonsinterviewssongs and music
case studiesmanuscriptssources
comic books, stripsnotebooks, sketchbooksstatistics
correspondencepersonal narrativesstatues
description and travelphotography

Primary Source Search Examples

Use the subject subdivisions to build search statements that may include names, events or topics. Below is a select sample of library catalog searches. Enter these terms and search for as Subject in IUCAT. You may also wish to try search for a ALL Fields which will give you a larger but less focused result. Use the AND operator (or the + sign) to combine ideas; for example, novelists and correspondence. AND will find your search words in any section of the subject headings and will increase the likelihood that you will find relevant material.

  • To search for document collections, Enter:
    feminism AND history AND sources
    Roosevelt Franklin AND archives
    Vietnam AND foreign relations AND sources

  • To search for oratory and speeches, Enter:
    American AND speeches
    Douglass Frederick AND speeches
    statesmen AND speeches
  • To search for interviews, personal accounts, and letters, Enter:
    novelists AND correspondence
    rap musicians AND interviews
    working class women AND diaries
  • To search for pictorial works, Enter:
    inscriptions AND Greece AND catalogs
    documentary photography AND Salgado Sebastião AND exhibitions
    painting AND Australian aboriginal AND exhibitions
  • To search for commercial and advertising art, Enter:
    advertising AND catalogs
    advertising AND collectibles AND catalogs
    commercial art AND catalogs
  • To search for film and documentaries, Enter:
    biographical films AND Mahatma Gandhi
    documentary films AND race relations
    documentary films AND sports

last updated October 23, 2017

You can browse and search for case law in the same way you search for primary sources, by subject, with a citation, or using keywords.  Note, however that the body of case law is so large that a general search in any legal database will likely provide an overwhelming number of results and could waste a significant amount of research time.  Instead, you should use a secondary source to identify at least one relevant case, which you can build on using the "one-good-case method."

The One-Good-Case Method

Not only can one relevant case lead you to other relevant cases in footnotes or annotations, legal databases include mechanisms for linking sources by topic, known as headnotes (Lexis) and key numbers (Westlaw).


In Lexis, headnotes show the key legal points of a case. Each headnote is written by a Lexis editor, drawing directly from the language of the court. 

"More Like This Headnote" allows you to focus on the terms of art or key words in a particular headnote. This feature uses those terms and keywords to find more cases with similar headnotes or with closely matching language in the opinions. That list of cases collected by a common headnote is known as a "digest of cases."

"Retrieve All Headnotes" shows you all case headnotes written for a specific topics and relevant cases. 

Key Numbers

In Westlaw, each legal issue in a case is identified and summarized in headnote form and then assigned a topic and key number in the West Key Number System.

Clicking on a particular key number will bring you to a digest of cases in the same jurisdiction that are all connected by that common topic.  You can change the jurisdiction of the digest to find additional cases.

You can also search key numbers directly to find relevant cases by topic and then select additional filters, such as jurisdiction or date.


Each major legal database has its own citator, and it's important to be comfortable with all three: BCite (Bloomberg), Keycite (Westlaw), and Shepard's (Lexis).  

Citators serve three purposes: (1) validation, (2) updating, and (3) additional research

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